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Why so many members of Congress are calling it quits

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy joins a growing number of lawmakers who are eyeing the exits.

House Members Return To Washington, DC After Midterm Election
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) walks to the House Floor on Capitol Hill on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022 in Washington, DC. 
Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Wednesday, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) became the latest lawmaker to announce his departure, adding to a wave of retirements and resignations in both the House and the Senate this term. McCarthy will resign before his term is over, leaving House Republicans with a narrower majority and his California seat up for a special election. Thus far, 37 House members and seven senators have announced that they’re leaving.

At this point, these departures are in line with past trends. The number of House retirements this cycle — people who will finish their term but won’t run for reelection — is on par with 2020 and 2022, according to Ballotpedia. The figure in the Senate is slightly higher. The announcements are also surging around the same time they typically do: right around candidate filing deadlines when lawmakers have to decide if they’re in it for another cycle. If these retirements continue at such a rapid pace, however, it’s possible the total number this cycle will exceed past records.

Additionally, although these departures follow some recent patterns, there are also unique characteristics in the types of lawmakers who are choosing to leave this term. In the House, several Republicans who’ve announced retirements or resignations are longtime lawmakers known for adhering to congressional norms and traditions rather than the more disruptive tactics of the far right. Some of the GOP retirees in both chambers have also expressed concern about the increasingly Trump-centric and extremist direction their party is taking. Multiple lawmakers who are retiring have cited general congressional dysfunction, from difficulty passing major legislation to petty infighting, as a central reason for their departure.

“I’m sure the leadership chaos on the Republican side is not helping keep members in Congress,” says Kyle Kondik, a political analyst and managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. “Overall, though, the House just does not seem like a very pleasant place to be.”

McCarthy’s departure feels driven by a combination of these factors, with his ouster as leader — which was led by the right flank of his own party — likely influencing his decision to leave. For a number of other lawmakers, personal ambitions are a key motivator, including many House members eager to pursue Senate and gubernatorial runs. And for older lawmakers, age and a push for generational change were also part of that decision.

As these departures continue to pile up, here are a few of the reasons lawmakers are eying the exits.

Party polarization

As the House and Senate GOP conferences have become more alt-right friendly, a number of moderate and institutionalist (meaning those interested in preserving norms and traditional procedures when it comes to passing policy) Republicans have decided to call it quits, with some signaling that there’s a limited place for their vision in their party.

Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, one of the few House Republicans to condemn his party’s election denialism, cited the GOP’s extremism on this issue as a specific reason for his retirement. “Too many Republican leaders are lying to America, claiming that the 2020 election was stolen, describing January 6 as an unguided tour of the Capitol, and asserting that the ensuing prosecutions are a weaponization of our justice system,” Buck said in a video announcing the decision.

McCarthy and his ally Rep. Patrick McHenry — who served as acting speaker after McCarthy was deposed and who is also leaving — are among the Republicans who, though they backed Trump, were slightly more institutionalist as well. Both members opposed shutting down the government as leverage for funding cuts, for example, and both struggled with the demands of an ascendant far right that made it clear the duo’s style of politics was out of fashion. Rep. Kay Granger, the head of the House Appropriations Committee who’s long been steeped in policy-making processes, is among those stepping down, too.

“What’s very pronounced for 2024 is we’re seeing a raft of retirements on the part of more institutionalist members,” Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman told Axios in November. “I think that list on the Republican side will grow in the next month.”

In the upper chamber, Sen. Mitt Romney (UT), the only Republican to vote to convict Trump in his impeachment trial twice, is also a notable retirement on the GOP side who has openly criticized the former president and his influence on the party.

“Look, my wing of the party talks about policy, and about issues that will make a difference to the lives of the American people,” Romney told ABC News’s Rachel Scott. “The Trump wing of the party talks about resentments of various kinds and getting even and settling scores and revisiting the 2020 election.”

Dysfunction

A byproduct of the political polarization in Congress has also been an increased level of dysfunction. This past term, that dysfunction has been especially apparent in the House, where members struggled to elect a speaker, threatened to enable a debt default, and deposed McCarthy over his unwillingness to shut down the government.

Frustration coupled with polarization has led to an increasingly toxic environment, with members on both sides calling each other names, accusing members of the other party of being hatemongers, using procedural tactics to punish one another, engaging in bullying, and even reportedly participating in altercations.

“Right now, Washington, DC, is broken,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) said in a statement about her departure. “It is hard to get anything done.”

Multiple lawmakers have referenced this dysfunction as they’ve discussed their departures, emphasizing that the lack of productivity is related to their dissatisfaction with the job. “The growing divide between Democrats and Republicans is paralyzing Congress and worsening our nation’s problems,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said in a video announcing his retirement.

That dysfunction has compounded some lawmakers’ willingness to take on the sacrifices that come with the role, which includes extended amounts of time away from family, long hours, and a contentious work environment.

This is the “most unsatisfying period in my time in Congress because of the absolute chaos and the lack of any serious commitment to effective governance,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) told the New York Times. “This feeling that the sacrifice we’re all making in order to be in Washington, to be witness to this chaos, is pretty difficult to make.”

Personal ambition

Others who’ve announced their departures are doing so for a simple reason: They’re interested in higher office.

In the House, nine of the Democratic members who’ve opted out of reelection are now vying for the Senate, including Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff, and Barbara Lee in California; Rep. Ruben Gallego in Arizona; Rep. Elissa Slotkin in Michigan; Rep. Colin Allred in Texas; Rep. David Trone in Maryland; Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester in Delaware; and Rep. Andy Kim in New Jersey. On the Republican side, Rep. Alex Mooney in West Virginia and Rep. Jim Banks in Indiana are similarly vying for Senate seats next year.

Some lawmakers are also pursuing other state-level offices including Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson and Republican Rep. Dan Bishop, both of whom are running for attorney general in North Carolina. Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger in Virginia is running for governor and Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips has thrown his hat into the presidential primary against President Joe Biden.

This pattern is less evident on the Senate side, in which six of the seven retirees are not seeking public office; just Republican Sen. Mike Braun has said he’s running for Indiana governor. In the House, 16 of the members who are retiring aren’t seeking public office.

Electoral challenges

Finally, some retirements are related to members getting drawn out of their districts by gerrymandering, which has made it impossible for them to win reelection. Others were poised to deal with contentious primaries and general elections as party polarization has gotten worse.

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson has discussed the issue candidly, saying, “I’ve officially been drawn out of my congressional district by a small group of politicians,” in a video on the subject. His North Carolina district has since been redrawn by the legislature to lean much more heavily to the right, a change that takes effect this year. Rep. Kathy Manning, another Democrat of North Carolina, has seen the same thing happen to her district and announced that she won’t run for reelection.

“Politicians should not choose their voters; voters should choose their representatives,” she said in a statement. Both their cases underscore how a Republican-led state legislature is attempting to skew electoral maps in favor of their party’s candidates.

Other lawmakers among the retirements would have faced fierce reelection fights, with Sen. Joe Manchin likely to face an intense battle in the heavily red state were he to run again. Sen. Mitt Romney was also among those who were set to have an aggressive conservative primary challenge if he decided to pursue another term.

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